The 1960s was a tumultuous decade.
There was the Vietnam War, riots, anti-war demonstrations, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the civil rights movement, and much more.
The country finally put aside all of the political and racial tensions by the end of the decade once we beat the Russians and the astronauts from Apollo 11 landed on the moon in the July of 1969.
At least that’s what I’ve been told in much of what I’ve read or seen in pop culture over the years. Obviously, I wasn’t even around in the 1960s so I have no idea what impact the mission to the moon had on the mood of the country.
But maybe the moon landing wasn’t the unifying event we read about in all of the history books and Wikipedia entries. Maybe that’s just a wonderful narrative that stuck because it makes for such a great story.
In his excellent book on the moon landing, One Giant Leap, Charles Fishman paints a different picture of the mood surrounding the space program in the 1960s.
In 1964, when a group of Americans was asked if we should, “go all out to beat the Russians in a manned flight to the moon,” only 26% said yes.
Even after the Apollo 8 mission in late-19681 meant U.S. astronauts were the first ever to circle the moon, Americans were still not on board with using so many resources to land on the moon.
Four weeks after millions of Americans watched a Christmas Eve message from those Apollo 8 astronauts in space, just 39% of people in a Harris Poll thought it was a good idea to land on the moon. And 55% of those surveyed said the $4 billion being spent annually by NASA wasn’t worth it.
Many questioned why the government would spend so much on space exploration when there were still so many unsolved problems on earth.
To be fair, people lie on surveys. And the moon landing remains the most-watched television event in history, with almost 95% of households tuning in for that monumental event.
I’m sure there were some people who received a reprieve from the chaos of that decade by getting caught up in the space race but many others probably weren’t impacted because personal circumstances overwhelmed any shot in the arm from beating the Russians to the moon.
The point here is that history doesn’t always perfectly line-up with what we read. And much of history is being re-written on a regular basis as stories, context, perspective and research methods change over time.
People are continually re-writing history for the simple fact that history is hard to define, even for those who lived or studied it.
Abraham Lincoln has been the subject of some 40,000(!) books.
The Battle of the Bulge took place around 75 years ago. From 2014-2016 there were at least 8 books written on this one WWII battle.
World War I took place more than 100 years ago. There were a half-dozen books, each hundreds and hundreds of pages, published in 2014 alone about why the Great War broke out in the first place.
Historians have given more than 200 hundred theories about what caused the fall of the Roman Empire.
The 17th century Dutch Tulip mania is held up by some as one of the biggest bubbles in history. Others downplay what happened and think the entire event was overblown.
The SEC wrote an 840-page report to explain the 1987 Black Monday crash. Investors still argue about what actually caused the biggest one-day loss in stock market history.
Google gave me 374 million hits on ‘The Great Depression’ and experts still can’t fully explain why it transpired the way it did.
There have already been a number of faulty explanations about the cause of the Great Financial Crisis of 2007-2009. There will be many more terrible takes in the future the further away we get from that period.
History is hard to pin down perfectly because narratives change more than statistics or facts over time. This is bound to be the case when we’re dealing with competing opinions, stories, and viewpoints.